Name of Activity: The Class as a Neural Network
Description of Activity:
Students in the class simulate a neural network and get a valuable lesson in the speed of neural transmission.
Procedure for Activity
Depending on your class size, arrange 15 to 40 students so that each person can place his or her right hand on the right shoulder of the person in front of him or her. Explain to students that their task as a neural network is to send a neural impulse from one end of the room to the other. The first student in the chain will squeeze the shoulder of the next person, who, upon receiving this “message,” will deliver (i.e., “fire”) a squeeze to the next person’s shoulder and so on, until the last person receives the message. Before starting the neural impulse, ask students (as “neurons”) to label their parts; they typically have no trouble stating that their arms are axons, their fingers are axon terminals, and their shoulders are dendrites.
To start the conduction, the instructor should start the timer on a stopwatch while simultaneously squeezing the shoulder of the first student. The instructor should then keep time as the neural impulse travels around the room, stopping the timer when the last student/neuron yells out “stop.” This process should be repeated once or twice until the time required to send the message stabilizes (i.e., students will be much slower the first time around until they adjust to the task). Next, explain to students that you want them to again send a neural impulse, but this time you want them to use their ankles as dendrites. That is, each student will “fire” by squeezing the ankle of the person in front of them. While students are busy shifting themselves into position for this exercise, ask them if they expect transmission by ankle-squeezing to be faster or slower than transmission by shoulder-squeezing.
Result of Activity
Most students will immediately recognize that the ankle-squeezing will take longer because of the greater distance the message (from the ankle as opposed to the shoulder) has to travel to reach the brain. Repeat this transmission once or twice and verify that it, indeed, takes longer than the shoulder squeeze.
General Thoughts of Activity
This exercise – a student favorite – is highly recommended because it is a great ice-breaker during the first few weeks of the semester and it also makes the somewhat dry subject of neural processing come alive.